Mission Is the Core Commitment

On any given day you can find a news story about the challenges that changing demographics and revenue pose to higher education, particularly residential liberal arts colleges. Those pressures are real, and I don't mean to diminish them, but they do offer small colleges an opportunity to think about who we are and what matters to us. Mission, rather than money, ought to be the basis for thoughtful decision-making as colleges recruit and enroll those students who will most benefit from studying within a school's particular academic model.

I am president of Hampshire College. We face the same challenges as the rest of higher education, and we are young and have a very small endowment. Nevertheless, we have reconsidered our approach to admissions, and we have some insights I'd like to share. Following the 2008 recession, Hampshire made some of the same decisions as many other schools, expanding the student body to increase revenue and using merit aid competitively. Over time, we have found that approach in conflict with our model of education.

Hampshire provides a highly customized, rigorous education to independent-minded students. Their own questions and ideas, rather than grades or competition, motivate our students. So we studied them, identifying traits shared by those students who thrive in our program. We learned many things, including that none -- zero -- of these academic "thrivers" had considered rankings when choosing a college. They chose Hampshire for its particular pedagogy, the ability to blend and pursue their academic passions, and commitment to values such as social justice, creativity, entrepreneurship, and sustainability. In other words, they selected a college because of its mission.

Hampshire is now test-blind, for reasons both of access and mission. Our faculty and board of trustees provided leadership as we worked through an enrollment strategy based on mission. Financial aid will be used to meet student need. We have made the decision to reduce the size of the student body and seek those students who most want, and will most benefit from, our unique and demanding academic approach. We recognize the costs and have asked ourselves if it is worth it. We feel strongly that it is. We're making a bold choice, but are convinced it is the right choice for our students and for our future.

Money will remain a front-burner issue for higher education, but we must not lose sight of our institutional missions in seeking revenue, or in pursuing rankings status. Mission, after all, is the central institutional reason for being.

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